Yishai, Steinitz targeted in Carmel fire probe

Yishai, Steinitz targeted in Carmel fire probe

20 June 2012

published by www.jpost.com

 Israel -Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz should take “particular responsibility” for serious failures in the country’s firefighting system, according to a long-awaited state comptroller’s probe into the December 2-5, 2010, Carmel Forest fire published on Wednesday.

The document slams Steinitz for making desperately needed funding for the Fire and Rescue Services contingent on extensive, long-term reforms.

Meanwhile, Yishai failed to take responsibility for the firefighting service’s operational readiness in an emergency, even though he did press for more funding, the report said.

Forty-four people lost their lives in the fire, the worst in the state’s history.

Among them were 37 Prisons Service cadets and their commanding officers, who died along with their driver when their bus was engulfed by flames.

They were on the way to Damon Prison to evacuate its prisoners. Three senior police officers, two firefighters and a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter also died.

The fire caused widespread damage to land and property, totaling millions of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees were destroyed and more than 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of land was burned.

The nation’s firefighting infrastructure lags behind that of other countries, and Israel has, proportionally, only one-quarter the firemen and fire trucks as other Western countries, the report revealed. Additionally, the country has only a fraction of the fire retardants that it is required to have.

In October 2009, 14 months before the fire, the Fire and Rescue Services commissioner said he was short 200 firefighters due to lack of funds. The firefighting service was also short 130 fire engines, while those vehicles in service were never updated and modernized as they should have been.

Moreover, the service did not have a centralized computer system.

In December 2009, a year before the fire, the firefighters’ committee chairman informed the prime minister that the firefighting service was “in a state of collapse,” adding that “firefighters in the field need to decide who gets to live and who dies.”

Lindenstrauss emphasized that the report was not advocating placing the guilt for the deaths of the 44 people in the fire on any one person, and said emergency service officials acted “courageously, resolutely and had been ready to lay their lives on the line” during the fire.

The report says, however, that Yishai and Steinitz had not done all they could to deal with these matters, even though both men had been aware the fire service was not equipped to cope with a major blaze.

Lindenstrauss said that the central issue in the report was that of responsibility.

“[The fire] was not an unexpected event,” he said.

The state comptroller said that in the light of this serious situation, which had been apparent to the prime minister, finance minister, interior minister, public security minister and entire government, the Treasury ought to have provided the funds for upgrading and developing the fire service as a matter of urgent priority, without any regard for long-term reform.

The report said Yishai and Steinitz took “all or nothing” approaches, with Steinitz sticking to his “reform first” stance and Yishai to his demands for hundreds of millions of shekels for a longterm plan. Both ignored the urgent need to upgrade the firefighting service, the document said.

With regard to Steinitz, Lindenstrauss noted that in his response to the draft version of the report in March, the finance minister said his role was different from that of other government ministers, because he was responsible for keeping within the budgetary framework – even when faced with justified demands for additional money.

Steinitz had said that the firefighting reforms were the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, and criticized Yishai for failing to ask for any of the budget to be allocated for emergency upgrades to the firefighting service, the report noted.

Lindenstrauss said that in the the light of the “very real danger posed to human life, property and the environment by natural disasters as well as emergencies,” Steinitz should have allocated the firefighting service the resources necessary to allow it to deal with emergencies even ahead of reforms.

“When it comes to saving human lives from catastrophic events, the finance minister must meet these needs, even partially, especially where a reasonable allocation of resources might have improved the operational readiness of the entire system,” Lindenstrauss said.

Instead, the minister allowed the firefighting service to deteriorate, the state comptroller added.

Lindenstrauss also criticized both ministers for failing to work together.

As a senior member of the government, Steinitz was aware that firefighting is one of the components of the emergency services, and it was his responsibility to cooperate with the interior minister to find ways to solve the problem, the report said.

Lindenstrauss said his office had not found any documents showing that Steinitz initiated any working meeting with Yishai to advance the matter or that he had instructed his subordinates to undertake staff work.

The state comptroller said that while Steinitz had voiced serious concerns about Yishai’s conduct and about the Interior Ministry, including that Yishai had not filed a proper budget request, the documents Steinitz handed over for the audit did not reflect those claims, and that there had been no record that Steinitz ever contacted Yishai or his office about the issue.

Meanwhile, the state comptroller said Yishai had been unaware of the firefighting service’s exact requirements, and slammed him for passing the blame on to his subordinates.

The state comptroller said this attitude was “difficult to accept,” adding that as the minister in charge, Yishai was responsible for organizing matters in his own office.

Lindenstrauss said that an analysis of Yishai’s actions in the run-up to the fire showed he had taken actions to address some of the fire service’s problems, but had failed to act to address the immediate, urgent issues.

For example, in September 2009, Yishai warned Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Steinitz and then-deputy defense minister Matan Vilna’i of the critical state of the firefighting service, Lindenstrauss said, and told them there was a budget shortfall of around NIS 400 million needed to cope with emergency situations.

However, instead of addressing the immediate, urgent need to rebuild the firefighting service and increase its operational capabilities, Yishai advocated a long-term plan that depended on the government allocating a massive budget.

And though Yishai was aware of a shortage in firefighting equipment, manpower and command-andcontrol measures, the interior minister did not delve deeply into these issues by asking his staff to present him with a plan of action.

Yishai should have requested internal funding to finance even part of the fire service’s immediate emergency budgetary needs, or a joint funding program between his ministry’s budget and that of the Treasury, the report said.

Lindenstrauss said that even though Yishai had opposed getting rid of firefighting helicopters in his previous term as interior minister, in his current term he had not acted to ensure that aerial firefighting service was fit for purpose.

Regarding the state of the Fire and Rescue Services and its preparedness for a major emergency, the state comptroller said he had recommended in previous reports that, until a comprehensive solution to the fire service’s organizational structure was found, the Interior Ministry should set up an interim solution for emergency situations.

Immediately after the report was published, Steinitz and Yishai moved to reject its criticisms.

The Treasury issued a two-line statement.

“The conclusions regarding the Treasury are bizarre and unfounded to the extreme,” it said. “The report threatens the Israeli economy’s stability, due to the fact that it makes upholding the budget law impossible.”

In closed conversations on Wednesday, Steinitz said he did not understand why he was included in the report at all. He said no finance minister around the world is seen as responsible for the fire department.

Meanwhile, Yishai said in response: “My heart goes out to the bereaved families on this difficult and painful day.

The report proves that ministers’ demands on life-saving issues must be taken seriously,” he said.

“What is most important now is to learn lessons that will prevent a similar disaster in the future. I intend to request a discussion in the cabinet to ensure the lessons of the report are learned and new rules are set for dealing with life-saving issues.”

Yishai also moved to play up the positive aspects of the report, noting that the comptroller wrote that under his leadership, the Interior Ministry made an unprecedented effort to rehabilitate the firefighting service, quoting from the report that “Yishai succeeded where others did not succeed.”

While Steinitz and Yishai bear the brunt of much of the criticism, the state comptroller said Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch must also take “general responsibility.”

Aharonovitch’s ministerial responsibility includes the police and the Prisons Service, both of which made serious errors during the fire, the report said.

Netanyahu must take overall responsibility for the government’s actions, the report said, noting that the prime minister failed to use his full authority to resolve the longterm dispute between the Interior Ministry and the Treasury.

In response to the report, Aharonovitch called the Carmel Forest fire a “national tragedy” and said the bereaved families were suffering “indescribable pain.”

He said his ministry had already begun to implement the lessons learned from the draft report published earlier this year, in order to be “better prepared for the next such event.”

Aharonovitch recommended that the emergency services operate under a single professional umbrella that could provide the required level of operational capability.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in response to the report that Netanyahu was studying the state comptroller’s findings, and emphasized that some of the defects highlighted in the report had been fixed immediately after the Carmel fire.

“A firefighting squadron has been formed that since last year has extinguished over 100 fires, including the huge fire in Jerusalem [near Yad Vashem in July 2011],” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“The firefighting service has been transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Public Security Ministry, and hundreds of millions of shekels have been allocated to open eight fire stations, to recruit 300 firefighters and purchase 89 fire engines.”

Emphasizing the positive aspects of the report, the Prime Minister’s Office noted that Lindenstrauss had mentioned Netanyahu’s response during the fire and his personal involvement to obtain firefighting assistance from abroad, through his contacts with leaders of other countries.

The prime minister had helped bring 38 firefighting aircraft and helicopters from 12 countries, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“It would have been impossible to deal with the fire successfully without this aerial firefighting equipment from abroad,” the Prime Minister’s Office added.

Emphasizing the need for accountability, Lindenstrauss said the relevant government ministers and officials must take responsibility for these failures.

Although the report found the police, firefighters, and Prisons Service had all made mistakes, the state comptroller said that current and past governments must also share responsibility for omissions and failures that led to the disaster.

However, Lindenstrauss said that when the present administration came to power, the “writing was already on the wall” regarding the pitiful state of the fire service.

Lindenstrauss called on government ministries to examine the report and then decide whether they should take disciplinary action against those responsible for the failures.

“The duty rests on each and every member of the government to explain to the public what he intends to do to prevent further disasters,” he added.

Although learning and implementing the lessons learned from the tragedy would be “cold comfort,” Lindenstrauss quoted an Arabic proverb, saying the result should not be that “the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.”

The state comptroller said the public should remain vigilant and insist that the government show accountability by implementing all the report’s findings.

“The great test of leadership is to see the reality in front of one and to determine a correct and appropriate course of action in real time,” Lindenstrauss added.

A team of 30 auditors from the State Comptroller’s Office worked on the 506-page document, which includes interviews with the police, the Prisons Service, the Interior Ministry and the Firefighting Commission. The auditors also met with families of the victims.

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